The Arty Semite

A Rock Opera for the 'Memory Industry'

By Jillian Steinhauer

  • Print
  • Share Share
John C. Watkins V
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin

It’s not every day that one gets to see an opera illustrated in comics and sung by rock musicians, but happily, May 7 was one of those days. That night “Memorial City,” the latest musical theater piece by comics great (and former Forward cartoonist) Ben Katchor and composer Mark Mulcahy, had its Manhattan premiere as the culmination of a daylong conference organized by New York University’s Humanities Initiative and The New York Institute for the Humanities.

The conference, titled “Second Thoughts on the Memory Industry,” explored ways we bear witness to and memorialize tragic events — from photojournalism to truth commissions to artistic endeavors — and how those acts have become “increasingly reified, stylized, fetishized, instrumentalized, hijacked and ossified,” according to the press release.

That’s heavy subject matter for a comics-rock opera. But Katchor and Mulcahy’s piece handled it well, inspiring both sardonic laughter and serious thinking. The opera starts from the literal premise of its title: a city is “possessed by mania for memorials.” People build them everywhere — on sidewalks, in parks, along the streets — and for every reason. Here, a plaque commemorates a man who choked on a pretzel. There, a monument honors a couple scalded to death by hot and sour soup. Architects take advantage of the frenzy, opening extra branches and offices, while residents bemoan their belief that photographs and written remembrances of loved ones will never suffice. Within days of an event people hold their heads and worry that they’ve forgotten what happened already.

The opera is a short 15 to 20 minutes, with Katchor’s vivid art projected on a screen while Mulcahy scats and sings with a trio whose jazzy numbers sharpen the production’s already darkly comic edge. But that’s just as well, since the piece lacks a narrative and probably can’t go much farther than it does. Anyway, 15 minutes of eccentric satire, with Katchor repeating the line “something bad has happened everywhere” like a mantra near the end, is all that’s needed to point the way toward reflection.

Indeed, something bad has happened everywhere. The question is, what do we do about it? Do we stop to commemorate everything, or do we let some of the bad pass us by? And how do we quantify bad-ness? Who does the work of ruling one tragedy more important or worthy of commemoration than another?

We all seem to agree that mass traumas like the Holocaust and 9/11 deserve memorials; in that sense it was fitting to have James E. Young, a juror for both the Berlin Holocaust and 9/11 World Trade Center memorials, follow Katchor and Mulcahy. But Young undercut both the humor and the existential musings the opera had inspired with a more practical talk about those projects. More fitting was Lawrence Weschler, director of the New York Institute for Humanities, who concluded by reading his “Berlin Epiphany,” a piece about visiting the Berlin Holocaust memorial.

Weschler’s essay begins inauspiciously: “One could see how it might have been intended to work,” he writes. He laments the “crisp springtime sky,” the colorful surrounding billboards, the busloads of tourists, and the happy German teenagers who laugh and run around — all signs of life that seem to violate the sanctity of the memorial and the somberness of remembrance.

But then he switches course. He begins to reconcile himself to the idea that maybe memory can’t be sanctified, “maybe life does just go on, and that is its blessing (as well as its curse).” In the end he accepts that with regards to Germany, he will always be of two minds, which, rather than feeling like a cop-out, seems a valuable lesson. Because it isn’t so much a choice between remembering and forgetting that we’re constantly faced with; it’s the challenge of doing both.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Second Thoughts on the Memory Industry, The New York Institute for the Humanities, Rock Opera, Opera, New York University, Music, Memorial City, Mark Mulcahy, Jillian Steinhauer, Lawrence Weschler, James E. Young, Conferences, Comics, Berlin Epiphany, Ben Katchor

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.